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Snake-Handling Preacher Dies from Snake Bite

May 31, 2012

A friend brought to my attention a story coming out of West Virginia yesterday. Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford, a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher, has died from a poisonous timber rattlesnake bite.

You can read the ABC report here.

Wolford was profiled just 6 months ago in an article by the Washington Post. He’d been bitten several times before and survived. As Discovery News explains, it’s impossible to predict whether a snake will deliver “a harmless ‘dry bite,’ or a deadly injection of toxins that can kill a full-grown human within hours.”

No doubt, these past brushes with serpents emboldened Wolford to believe that he owed his survival, not to the lack of venom in those bites, but to the power of God:

“Anybody can do it that believes it,” he says. “Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.” … “I know it’s real; it is the power of God,” Wolford says. “If I didn’t do it, if I’d never gotten back involved, it’d be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real.”

The sad irony is that, at the age of 15, Wolford watched his father, also a snake-handling preacher, die from a snake bite. In what has to be one of the most mind-boggling rationalizations I’ve ever read, Wolford said of his father’s death, “I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.” Given that what his father “believed in” was that he could be bitten by snakes and not die, it’s hard to understand how death by snakebite amounts to dying “for what you believe in.” Seems more likely dying to disprove what you believe in.

The other sad irony is that Mark 16:17-18, the passage on which Pentecostal snake-handlers stake their lives, is part of the longer ending of Mark that scholars have long recognized as inauthentic. Death from lack of textual criticism. Tragic, really. Perhaps the King James Bible should come with a warning label.

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9 comments

  1. Good to have you back.


  2. But couldnt the same be said for anyone who dies as a result of belief in any of the sacred texts? I am just curious how you reconcile your rational view on this with the knowledge that we have no means of verifying the authenticity of any of the words of Jesus in the Gospels. Even if we had original 1st century manuscripts, we wouldnt know whether the Greek gospels accurately recorded or translated the original Aramaic teachings first heard by illiterate fishermen. Is it death due to lack of knowledge for any Christian who dies on the “words of Jesus”? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


    • Good questions, Matt. Three things in response:
      (1) It’s true that we can’t have total certainty about the authenticity of any of the words of Jesus in the gospels (although I think the problem lies more in the time gap before the writing of the gospels than in Aramaic/Greek translation issues). But that doesn’t mean the gospels don’t afford good evidence of what Jesus taught, especially in instances where we have multiple independent attestation. It’s a spectrum. Some sayings have a high degree of reliability. Others have less. And some, such as Mark 16:9-20, have proved to be later additions and are, therefore, highly dubious.
      (2) The problem with Mark 16:9-20 is that it purports to have Jesus telling people that they will be impervious to things that normally cause death. Most of the other alleged words of Jesus do not fall into that category. Few people have died from rendering taxes unto Caesar, for example. I can’t think of another purported teaching of Christ that actually involves risking your life.
      (3) There certainly have been some people who have died for their belief in the authenticity of the gospel claims concerning Jesus (usually because of persecution). Yes, in some way, these people are not dissimilar to snake-handlers. The difference, as I see it, is that we have very good objective reasons for believing Mark 16 to be inauthentic. I don’t think the same can be said about the teachings of Jesus as a whole. They are uncertain, as you point out. But uncertainty isn’t the same as demonstrable falsity.
      Does that get at the gist of your questions?


  3. Yes i think i understand your position. I guess id be interested to hear your thoughts on a couple follow-ups: 1) is the “gist” of what Jesus says in the gospels that much different than the “gist” of what a scribe attributed to Jesus in the long ending of Mark? That is, in Mark a later follower wrote what he figured Jesus probably said, possibly even relating oral tradition. Somewhere along the way someone *may* have added the snake part (or Jesus may have actually said that). That *little* interpolation arising through oral “gist” tradition made a big difference for this pastor! So again, to reiterate: what was different in the intervening years between Jesus Aramaic sermons to illiterate laborers and when a Greek gospel was composed, and the initial authorship of Mark and it’s subsequent “lengthening”? Im just curious how you find one unacceptable and the other worth staking one’s life goals upon. Thanks!


    • Most scholars date Mark’s gospel to the 60s AD. If I’m not mistaken, scholars surmise that the longer ending of Mark was added in the early part of the 2nd century AD. So the two are not on equal footing. The author of the interpolation may have been writing almost 100 years after Jesus’ death; the author of Mark only 30-40 years. So Mark is far and away more trustworthy than the interpolation.
      If your point is that you wouldn’t stake your life on something written even a generation after the alleged event, fair enough. If there were authentic passages of Mark that told me to drink poison, I’d probably think long and hard before following that passage too.
      But you’ve made a subtle shift from talking about risking one’s life to “staking one’s life goals upon”. I think I would require a higher certainty about a passage before I risked my life on it. I wouldn’t require quite so high a degree of certainty when it comes to my basing my “life goals” on a text.


  4. Perhaps sometime you could make a post on how you envision the “pre-gospel” and “gospel-writing” phases went down so I’d better understand where youre coming from. I would definitely be interested in reading it… Maybe I am mistaken, but isnt it the case that interpolation should be less likely decades after strong manuscript traditions are established? In the 2nd century arent we proposing that there are a sort of “proof text” catalogue of manuscripts in the collections of the churches? It is specifically in those first years before 60ad that we have mostly illiterate, lower class aramaic speaking believers… People who would be entirely unable to, and far too distant, to verify the contents of Greek stories written about Jesus. How is interpolation, in your view, less likely? Point taken about the “risking ones life” theme… Thanks for the thoughts!


  5. I think a belief in God and plain stupidity need to be reconciled and in this case the priest made an error. In Melbourne a company called reptile shows http://www.snakebusters.com.au,/A> do kids parties using the worlds deadliest snakes and no one ever gets hurt. The reason is that they don’t have any faith or trust in their snakes and they have had them surgically devenomized by a process that’s simple and painless for the snakes. They get a lot of flck from others in the reptile business lacking the expertise to do the operation themselves, but as far as safety goes, the reptile show company do have some common sense which seems to be rare among snake handlers.


  6. But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39 ESV)

    I lump religious snake-handlers into the vast subset of Christ-followers who covet sign gifts, as if simple faith and trust aren’t enough. While Jesus and his followers produced signs to verify their authority, the signs he commanded us to produce are spiritual fruit, not spiritual gifts. Preoccupation with “sign gifts” smacks of carnal pride.

    When I realized the apostate nature of my native, Catholic church, I became skeptical of everything that claimed to be “Christian,” and found an alarming body of evangelical teachings that hearkened back to Romanist roots. Even our cherished, Trinitarian teachings originated in Rome, which has caused my reexamination of God’s fundamental nature.

    That said, I absolutely believe the eternal, self-existent Word of God, who spoke the universe into existence and established the means of communicating with his creation, is willing and able to provide us with the portion of his truth that is relevant to our temporal frame of reference. His willingness and ability to convey his truth to us, however, does not guarantee our willingness and ability to receive it. As saturation of toxic elements in our bodies blocks absorption of essential nutrients, so intellectual and spiritual error blocks our absorption of the eternal, self-existent One’s truth.

    “Reason” has suffered a bum rap from Evangelical Christianity as a rash reaction to the arbitrarily skeptical brand of reasoning employed by atheists. Carefully choosing the right words to communicate and defend God’s good news requires the highest level of reasoning, and indeed, striving toward those works without careful reasoning produces the kind of childish dogmatism that invites attack by free thinkers.

    Personally, I must maintain a critical overview of my own interpretations of God’s word. Even if I were qualified to exegete Scripture, I would have no authority to stand dogmatically upon my own conclusions as if they were holy writ.



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